Don Ballew Graham, author, educator, and critic, arguably the most significant scholar of Texas literature, film, and popular culture for almost half a century, was born on January 30, 1940, in Lucas, Texas, in Collin County just north of Dallas, to Willie and Myrtle Joyce (Ballew) Graham. The area where he grew up, comprised mainly of cotton farms, later became famous when Southfork Ranch, just four miles from Lucas, was publicized as the ranch home of the evening soap opera, Dallas. Graham attended a small rural school through the third grade before his family moved to McKinney, Texas, and then to Carrollton, Texas, a few years later. A good athlete with a strong fastball, Graham earned the nickname “Smoke” in baseball. He also excelled in basketball and was known for his very long drives in golf. Graham graduated from Carrollton High School in 1958. He received a B.A. from North Texas State University (now University of North Texas) in 1964 and an M.A. from the University of Maryland in 1966. He worked as an instructor at Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University), while he completed a Ph.D. in 1971 at the University of Texas at Austin. His dissertation was on Frank Norris and naturalism. He secured his first academic job at the University of Pennsylvania. His time there ironically led him back to Texas literature and culture, because he could never shake his Texan identity, especially his distinctive voice. Because of this identification, he was soon assigned to teach a course on Western movies, which sealed his connection to Texas forever and pointed him back to his home state.
In 1976 Graham brought his drawl back home to UT Austin. He inherited the famous course “Life and Literature of the Southwest” created by the celebrated Texas writer J. Frank Dobie and began a teaching career of almost forty-three years in which he became the J. Frank Dobie Regents Professor of English and American literature. Graham was admired by his many students, some of whose careers he helped shape, such as Philipp Meyer, author of the acclaimed novel, The Son (2013). Graham also maintained a deep interest in the world beyond Texas by teaching in UT’s Normandy program in France, at the Université Paul Valéry in Montepellier, France, and at the University of Sydney in Australia, but he was forever connected to Texas.
Graham was committed to his teaching and academic concerns, but he broke from academia by working persistently to bridge the gap between the academic community and the larger society. As the preeminent scholar on Texas literature, film, and popular culture, he published ten books, edited six others, contributed chapters to and reviews of many others, and proposed and planned at least a half dozen more books. Early in his writing career, Graham published a book specifically for a non-academic audience, Cowboys and Cadillacs: How Hollywood Looks at Texas (1983). On the cover is a vintage pink Cadillac convertible with longhorns affixed to the hood. In the introduction, Graham explained how at the University of Pennsylvania, despite not wearing boots, his voice identified him as a Texan. Graham was a member of the Texas State Historical Association and selected as a fellow in 1989. That same year he also focused on popular culture with a biography of World War II hero and Texan Audie Murphy in No Name on the Bullet: A Biography of Audie Murphy, showing that the highest decorated soldier who became a movie idol probably suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
He published three books on the King Ranch. Giant Country: Essays on Texas (1998), his first book mentioning the King Ranch, also begins with a self-conscious, self-interview, in which Graham tells himself about the book: “I’m interested in the gap between mythology and experience. It’s where I live, in Irony Gap.” He also published Kings of Texas: The 150-Year Saga of an American Ranching Family (2003), a careful examination of the history and significance of the King Ranch story. Giant: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber, and the Making of a Legendary American Film (2018), was Graham’s third book (and the final book published during his lifetime) drawing on his interest in the King Ranch, which he saw as emblematic of how Texas has changed. He told an interviewer that the book tells “the story in part of how Texas came to be” but also focuses on how “the state needed to change some of its traditional culture, most notably discrimination against racial minorities.” The story of Giant “melds together two great sagas—Texas ranching culture, with nods toward the King Ranch—and oil—with a fictional portrait of the most famous wildcatter of them all, Glenn McCarthy and his Shamrock Hotel.”
In 2008 Graham published, as part of a new series from Texas Christian University Press called Texas Small Books, State Fare: An Irreverent Guide to Texas Movies, a condensed discussion of Texas films, focusing on “Grade A Texas Beef” big Texas movies—Red River (1948), Giant (1956), Hud (1963), and The Last Picture Show (1971). He also provided brief discussions of twenty-three films made since 1945 that Graham deemed worth examining. He concluded with a section called “Schmaltz across Texas” about several minor, weak, or bad Texas films such as Hope Floats (1998) that he described as a “sudser.” Graham’s published books demonstrate the variety and focus of his interests and an abiding sense of humor. Other books include: The Fiction of Frank Norris (1978); Texas: A Literary Portrait (1985); State of Minds: Texas Culture and Its Discontents (2011), a companion collection to Giant Country with select essays from 1999–2009; and Michael Wilding and the Fiction of Instant Experience: Stories, Novels, and Memoirs, 1963–2012 (2013), that documents Graham’s ongoing interest in Australia.
Writing for a nonacademic audience continued as Graham became a regular contributor to Texas Monthly magazine for many years and published articles on Texas literature and film and numerous reviews that covered a wide range of Texas books and movies. In 2005 he praised Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2005) with references to academic critics’ embrace of McCarthy’s dense use of obscure allusions. Ironically, in 2008 Graham published in Texas Monthly an open letter titled “Please Go Away” to McCarthy and chastised him for breaking free of his reclusive image by appearing on Oprah and attending the Academy Awards. But most of his Texas Monthly pieces stayed on the nonacademic side of the fence. One of his most notable reviews was of Mary Karr’s second memoir Cherry (2000), a continuation of her autobiography first begun in the highly-regarded The Liars’ Club (1995). Graham succinctly exploded Cherry with the title of his review: “The Pits.”
Graham also edited several books, including Western Movies, co-edited with William T. Pilkington (1979); Critical Essays on Frank Norris (1980); The Texas Literary Tradition: Fiction, Folklore, History, co-edited with James W. Lee and William T. Pilkington (1983); South by Southwest: 24 Stories from Modern Texas (1986); Lone Star Literature: From the Red River to the Rio Grande (2003); and Literary Austin (2007). Significantly he published more than 400 articles and reviews on varied subjects, including major writers such as Katherine Anne Porter (one of his favorite writers), J. Frank Dobie, Frank Norris, Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, and many others. Graham was also a prominent figure in Texas literature in other ways. For two years, in 1998 and 1999, he served as president of the Texas Institute of Letters, the leading organization recognizing and promoting Texas writers since 1936. He altered one of the time-consuming parts of the annual banquet, readings of the “Necrology,” which lugubriously recounted the biography of members who died during the year, and presented the information visually instead.
Graham was recognized many times over the years for both his teaching and writing. In 2014 UT Austin’s alumni magazine, The Alcalde, named Graham one of the Top Ten Professors Ever. Other awards include the UT Austin Regents' Outstanding Teaching Award; UT Austin Chancellor's Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching; UT Austin Frank C. Irwin, Jr. Centennial Honors Professorship; the A.C. Greene Literary Award; the Texas Institute of Letters Carr P. Collins Prize for Best Book of Nonfiction; the Writers’ League of Texas Violet Crown Award; and the University of North Texas Distinguished Alumnus Award, among many others.
Publicly regarded as cranky and cantankerous, Graham was noted for his strong sense of humor, apparent in his writing and in casual conversations. Once at a conference in Nevada, he joined a group for a tour of Boot Hill and commented that his own epitaph would say: “Here lies Don Graham. He had no class.” Friends heralded his loyal friendship, and, while he disdained traditional academic writing, he was a dedicated researcher who wrote clear prose. Always active, Graham outlined a new book, based on the movie Hud and its source, Larry McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By (1961), with his agent, Jim Hornfischer, a few days before his death.
Graham and his first wife Sandra were married in 1962. They adopted two daughters, Sheila and Victoria, but the couple divorced in 1977. From 1980 to 1987 he was married to Lois J. Volpone. From 1991 until his death he was married to Betsy Berry. Don Graham died of a stroke at St. David’s Medical Center in Austin on June 22, 2019. He was buried in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin and not far from J. Frank Dobie’s grave, with whose name Graham was connected throughout his years at UT but whose shadow Don Graham eclipsed.